As one of the founding members of the iconic EBM band Nitzer Ebb, Bon Harris is practically a legend to fans of the genre. Nitzer Ebb has a combined output of fourteen albums and EP’s since 1983. If you ask any current electronic band who influenced them, you’re sure to hear Nitzer Ebb’s name mentioned. With the band considered one of the godfathers of industrial electronic music, they’ve earned their place in history. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Bon just prior to their live performance on May 20th, in Tampa Florida. Let me preface this by saying that I have a been huge fan since the album “That Total Age” was released in 1987. Nitzer Ebb’s music is part of the soundtrack of my youth. If you’re a fan of the band’s music, you know that it is often aggressive and dark sounding. While that might be an appropriate description for the music, I found talking to Bon Harris to be quite the opposite. He was quite friendly and had a sort of quiet charm with a great sense of humor. You can read my interview below as Bon discusses new Nitzer Ebb material, the current tour, side projects and much more…
You can listen to the interview below on the XS ROCK podcast:
XS ROCK: So, tell me about this current tour? How’s it been so far?
Bon: The shows have been amazing. Every single one has been really well attended and the response has been fantastic. I was a little bit of an experiment for Doug and I. David and Simon, two of the founding members of the project was supposed to come with us. We had done some shows as a four piece and that was coming along quite nicely, but we ran into some bureaucratic issues. This is actually the first time that Doug and I have performed as a two-piece. That was a bit new, but we’ve been the core of the band for a long time and a lot of people recognize that. People seem to be perfectly happy with it being that way. In terms of performance, it’s nice to have the other members, but we’re managing to pull it off with just two of us and everyone’s going home happy so, so far, so good.
XS ROCK: What are your favorite tracks to play live?
Bon: Ooh! Um, Getting Closer is always a fun one. It’s kind of punk rock and we both get to dance and sing and all that. Murderous is always great because it’s such an iconic track for a lot of people. Those are my favorites. But on different nights, with different crowds, it’s different ones. I like some of the funkier, mid-tempo ones to groove a bit.
XS ROCK: Are you changing the set list much on this tour?
Bon: We will change it. There are so many new things and new variables introduced, we’ve kind of kept to what we know for now. Also, a little bit of that comes down to the amount of time we have. If it’s one of the older songs that we haven’t played in a really long time, we’ve got to run through them to get it just right. At this point, Doug works in Black Line, Nitzer Ebb, Terrance Fixmer and there’s a lot of different lines to remember, so we have to refresh his memory on those. So throughout 2019, we will vary it more, but for the most part, it’s been working so we’ve been going with it.
XS ROCK: Nitzer Ebb’s last full-length album of new material was released in 2010. Which was fifteen years after Big Hit was released. When can we expect to see a new studio album?
Bon: At the moment, we’re quite happy. Some of the format and the idea of bringing in David and Simon was to eventually be able to improvise a little more with the tracks and do different versions of the tracks. We didn’t want to do too much of that soon, because people have got favorites and we don’t want to mess with them too much. We’ll probably pick selected tracks to do extended tracks or re-works. But, for now, we’ve got so much material and some of the tracks on later albums are so layered that you could easily do three or four different versions of the track with what’s in there. We’re more interested in that. In terms of releasing new music, we’re tending to focus more on Black Line and other projects that we’re working on to explore the musical changes. I think there’s enough material to work with with all of the back-catalog of the Ebb stuff. We wanted to do the Ebb thing this time without it getting too immersive. Once you get into the studio, it takes time and seems to take over everything as soon as you commit to a record. I think in previous times when we’ve come back, the project tends to take on a life of its own and run away with its self so we’re very cognizant this time and we’re trying to keep it so it’s fun and enjoyable.
XS ROCK: Prior to starting Nitzer Ebb did you have a formal music background?
Bon: No. Not at all. About as close as it would come, that we liked dancing. From that, we had an acute awareness of rhythm and what makes a dance floor move, but I had no formal music training at all.
XS ROCK: I’ve always felt that early on, the music and lyrics have been often left open to interpretation, in the same way, that visual art is represented, where it’s dependent on the viewer/listener. Later on, I felt like you began to make the lyrics a little less abstract and you’ve become more of a storyteller, but still with a few blanks left to fill in by the listener. Tell me a little about your lyrical inspirations and what image you think your music conveys?
Bon: I think the storyteller angle is a good one. I’ve always identified with that. And again it goes back to that fact that Doug and I both have always been interested in writers. It’s like little vignettes of life or little snapshots. There’s a darker side to it, but I also think it’s often more like an inner dialogue or inner questioning or self-examination a lot of the time. it’s a lot of fairly honest examining of our failings as well as our doubts or our anxiety and for a lot of people that’s like “Yeah, me too”. It’s our way of speaking to people. We all have these thoughts and questions. At least any thinking person does. All of us have these aspirations and dreams of what we’d like to be and of course, we have these questions on how am I going to get there. I think in a really weird and abstract way people can interpret it how they want it, like a good piece of art.
XS ROCK: Which do you prefer? Writing new songs and recording or the energy of playing for a live audience?
Bon: They’re both good in their place. There are days when you feel creative and you feel like you’ve got music in you and that’s always a good feeling, but really, you don’t feel like those things have been proven or finalized until they’ve been in front of an audience. It’s sort of like a baptism of fire. So they’re both good and normally the rule is once you’ve been doing one for a little while, you wish you were doing the other. If you can keep a balance between the two then it’s great.
XS ROCK: What’s the strangest request that you’ve ever received from one of your fans?
Bon: I don’t know what ones are publishable really (Laughs).
XS ROCK: You guys were quite young when you started out back in 1983. Were your parents supportive of your aspirations to play in a band?
Bon: Oh Yeah! When Doug and I first set our sights on getting a synthesizer, the SH-101. We stayed in and saved up a bunch of money and Doug’s dad actually contributed money towards it to help us get going. He said what we managed to save, he would match. In the end, we saved enough to buy the synth and he bought our amplifier. In the early days, we used to rehearse at my parent’s house. So every Saturday, my parents would take the dog for an extended walk. We would move all of the couches to one end of the living room and clear all of that space. We’d set up the drums and back then we had pieces of metal and it sort of looked like an industrial area. It was really quite loud, so my neighbors didn’t have a good time of it. Every Saturday, we’d set up and rehearse to around three o’clock. Both of our parents were very supportive. We got a few little rumblings when we were intent on doing it but were on unemployment or there were a few comments like “When are you going to get a real job”? etc. But I think they could see that we were super committed and that we were going to try and see it through. I think they did everything that they could to help us do that.
XS ROCK: Which bands or artists inspired you to perform? Why?
Bon: Well. you know from going to see live bands, we like Nick Cave and Killing Joke. We were lucky enough to see the Birthday Party play live, and just the energy and craziness of that band really cemented our ideas about live performances and how we’d like to do it. A lot of those post-punk type bands.
XS ROCK: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?
Bon: I think making a difference in peoples lives when they were in a tough spot or were having some difficult times. It seems, recently, in particular, I’ve had quite a few gay people come up to me and said when they were discovering for themselves or coming out to others, they didn’t necessarily find our music aggressive or angry, they found it defiant. And also, uplifting. And that is really more what we meant it to be. I think anything like that, where you maybe have people who feel isolated or marginalized, if our music has given them hope and strength, I would consider that to be a great achievement.
XS ROCK: If you weren’t performing in a band what kind of career do you think you would have?
Bon: If I got to choose, I’d be an animator. I’ve always been interested in animation and because I do the programming on a synth, you’re splitting the sound down into microscopic slices in time and you do exactly the same thing with animation. It’s very similar. In animation, you look at movement and it looks smooth and then you break it down to 24 frames per second. I’ve always loved that and lately, I’ve been working on some of my own animation projects. Otherwise, maybe a writer. Doug and I have always been keen readers and writers. In my younger years, I might have said a dancer, but I think the ship may have sailed on that one (laughs). I do what I can on stage, but I don’t think anyone’s going to be hiring me these days.
XS ROCK: What do you think of the current music scene?
Bon: I think because there’s so much out there in music now. It’s always going to be a mixed review. I think you do see some outstanding or really interesting things coming out but because of the nature of the marketing of music, you get a lot of music that sounds very similar. As an older musician, it’s brilliant how the younger generation is picking up on some earlier influences, but we were guilty of this as well. We were big fans of DAF and in the early days, you don’t have many nuances so you tend to sound very much like them. You know, I hear bands that obviously have a huge Joy Division record collection. And it might be great and new, but for me, it’s so close to what went before that I don’t need it again. But it’s great if that band finds an audience. How easy it is to make electronic music now, can certainly lead to some lazy practices for some people. But, for every three or four bands that you don’t respond too, you find one that’s really amazing.
XS ROCK: For anyone that doesn’t know you, what would they be surprised to know about you?
Bon: If they’ve only seen us on stage, they’d probably be surprised about easy going and humorous we are. We appear very serious, and we do take the music very seriously. In general, the lyrics are about very serious things. But we actually do enjoy life and we are happy people. We’re happy when other people are happy. We don’t like to see suffering or the dark side of things. And again a lot of that in the music is about resistance or defiance and some form of rebellion if you don’t think you’re being treated fairly and a lot of that comes from a genuine enjoyment of life and a love of freedom.
XS ROCK: Is there anything that you’d like to promote or say to your fans out there?
Bon: Mainly thanks for all of your amazing support. I mean, for us to be able to come back. We’ve been doing this for around 35 years now, playing shows and to have such long gaps between them and still have people come out and the amount of energy and love that we get at each of these shows is amazing. So, my main feeling about what I’d like to say is thanks and express my gratitude for the support.